‘Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open


Before the flu started wreaking its havoc, producers’ biggest worry had been the proposed doubling of a hefty war tax on theater tickets — a move they tried to shame senators out of by reminding them that the enemy, the German kaiser, had at least one positive feature: his staunch support of the stage.

It wasn’t until late September that The Times’s Sunday drama column, What News on the Rialto?, mentioned the flu. The worry was not about bustling Broadway but about poor Boston, one of the first American cities hit by the virus’s deadly second wave. Its theaters had just been closed, leaving touring companies to languish.

Only two weeks later, though, “theatrical men” were blaming a dent in some New York shows’ box office on twin factors: the latest war-bond drive, which they had loudly dreaded, and the flu, which sneaked up on them. A week after that, the industry news was almost uniformly grim, with New York and San Francisco the rare “communities of consequence” with stages still open for business.

“The condition, of course, is one unprecedented in the theater world,” The Times’s column opined. “The slump in New York reached its high mark — or low mark — during the last six days, and even the most substantial successes had empty seats.”

Then, abruptly, the crisis was over in New York. By early November, as the war ended, the virus loosened its hold on the city. By the middle of the month, with emergency rules rescinded, ticket sales headed up again, and Actors’ Equity reached a new contract agreement with theater managers. (It is a curious fact that actors worked through the flu outbreak, but contemporary Equity declined to discuss it for this article.)

As the December holidays approached, the city’s box-office revenues returned to glowing health.

“The same hardly applies to the remainder of the country,” What News on the Rialto? added darkly, “particularly the West, where the renascent influenza germ is again beginning to play havoc.”

What Copeland did right, Navarro said, was to act early, employing stringent isolation and quarantine measures for the infected, enforced by what he called “a very well-funded, very efficient, well run, longstanding public health department.”

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